If you’ve spent any kind of time in a Western Protestant church, you’ve undoubtedly been taught, intentionally or otherwise, that all of Paul can basically be boiled down to a single simple Latin (Latin?) phrase: Sola fide. If you’re not into dead languages (which, for some reason, people keep using!), that’s “faith alone,” as in “you have been justified before God by faith alone.” Put negatively, you have certainly not been justified or saved by your own works.
Sola fide was among the five solae (it’s a Latin-fest!) that emerged in the Protestant Reformation: Sola scriptura (contra papal bulls & church tradition), Sola fide (contra saving indulgences), Sola gratia (Sola fide‘s twin sister), Solus Christus (contra priestly mediators), and Soli Deo gloria (contra the litany of Catholic saints). They are all five reactions against perceived abuses within the early 16th century (that was 500 years ago!) church in Europe.
Now, Sola fide was originally meant to combat a tendency in which people within the late Medieval church were aiming to rack up good deeds in order to be accepted by God. Against this, Martin Luther stood on the notion that one was saved by her faith in Christ rather than any accumulation of godly work she might put forward throughout her life. After all, “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). The doctrine continues as a central tenet of Protestant churches, as it should.
But there’s a problem. By virtue of trickle down theology (which is a thing, sort of), Sola fide has transformed, for many in the church, into a do nothing ethic. If faith is all that matters, then really, what does it matter what you do after you believe? And if someone tells you otherwise, that indeed your actions do matter, your internal Sola fide alarm starts screaming, “Warning! Warning! Legalism alert!”
If we tell a story whose lead is played by a human disposition of faith, we will inevitably create introspective communities, devoid of costly reconciliation and lacking in acts of mercy, because faith as a human disposition is a story of faith without the faithfulness of Christ unto death on a cross (89).
Was your church community hyper-introspective? There was a reason.
But anyway, was this actually Paul’s ethic? That is, was Paul actually all faith and no works?
Not at all. In fact, there’s a good argument to be made that justification by grace through faith was neither Paul’s primary message nor original to him.
Rather, Paul’s ethic, as Kirk is keen to point out in his fourth chapter, is entirely based on the model of Christ. If Paul ever heard from any of the apostles that Jesus had promised they would do the same sorts of things he did and more (Jn 14:12), he must have taken it to heart. Paul’s ethic was a christological ethic. Paul was an imitator of Christ.
Perhaps I’ll get into this more in a subsequent post, but Paul’s life work could be summed up in Philippians 3:10-11, which reads, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.”
Yeah, this should be a second post. Stay tuned for more on Paul’s works.